The attorney representing three Kansas City female television news personalities, who are claiming age and sex discrimination from their employer, KMBC,may suffer a serious case of deja vu, if the case is transferred to federal court.
Kansas City Attorney Dennis Egan, who also helped represent KMBC Anchor Christine Craft during the 1980's, has filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of KMBC reporters and anchors Maria Antonia, Peggy Breit and Kelly Eckerman. The suit, filed in 2008, claims the three were discriminated against when they were demoted based on their status as middle-aged women. The suit states that middle-aged and older men are kept in high-profile positions, regardless of their age.
"All three plaintiffs have been discriminated against and harassed, on a continuing basis, based on their age and/or gender (female)," the case states. The original suit cites a pattern of harassment and discrimination throughout the Kansas City television newsroom. "The environment at KMBC-TV has transformed over time, from one of cooperation into a hostile environment, permeated with threats, intimidation and disrespect," the suit states.
Craft's case was similar, charging KMBC officials, who are not the same ones today who manage the station, with telling her she was "too old, unattractive and not deferential enough to men."
However, Craft, today a California attorney who works part-time as a radio talk-show host, told KCTribune that while women have gained status in the past nearly 25 years, they still are not equal to men, especially in the appearance-conscious world of television news.
"I think my case made a lot of difference for women," Craft said in a telephone interview from her home in California. "No women over the age of 40 were anchors in 1980," she said.
The 2008 case, which was originally filed in state court, is much more likely to find in favor of the defense, if heard by the United States Court of Appeals, the same court that rejected a multi-thousand dollar award to Craft.
Egan filed a motion earlier this week with the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the case is subject to the Missouri Human Rights Act. Egan could not be reached for comment this week. However, Bert Braud, with the Popham Law Firm in Kansas City, in which Egan also is a member, said the case, a "Petition for Writ of Mandamus/Prohibition," is "a little different than an ordinary appeal, so, hopefully," would be decided soon. However, that decision, which ultimately will decide where the case is tried, could take up to nine months to decide.
Attorneys for the television station, now owned by the Hearst-Argyle Stations, Inc., argue the case falls under the umbrella of the federal Labor Management Relations Act, falling under federal jurisdiction. Attorneys with the Kansas City firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, who represent the station, could not be reached for comment.
Attorney Gene Graham, who is following the case, but has no role or stake in the suit, said the federal system, by its nature, is very limited in its support to plaintiffs and usually favors defendants, or big corporations. However, Graham said contrary to public notions, judges are not responsible for this conservative bent, but only interpret laws, which are enacted by Congress.
"There's a huge difference in federal and state courts," said Graham, a partner in the Independence firm of White, Graham, Buckley and Carr. "It (federal courts) are much more conservative and much more favorable to business than to individuals." Graham described the federal employment laws, such as the Labor Management Relations Act, as "conservative laws enacted by a conservative Congress."
In that respect, Graham said, the courts are much the same in 2009 as they were in the 1980s, when Craft's suit was thrown out by then United States District Judge Joseph E. Stevens, who claimed the original $500,000 state jury award was "excessive." The Craft case was then brought to another jury trial, this time in Joplin, Missouri, where they awarded Craft $225,000 in damages and $100,000 in punitive damages in 1984. The appeals court again rejected the jury decision, claiming Craft's case lacked sufficient evidence of discrimination.
In the 2008 suit, Eckerman charged the station switched her to a Tuesday-through-Saturday shift in 2007, disregarding her status as a single mom and her weekend schedule of charity events. When Eckerman argued that she helped bring up the ratings as anchor sitting opposite long-time male anchor Larry Moore, the station replied they can hire younger anchors for a lot less money.
The suit also states that Wayne Godsey, KMBC general manager, told Eckerman, "You know, men can have a nice, long run in this business, and women, if they take care of themselves, can have a decent run, too. You've had a decent run.” In addition, he went on, "As long as Larry continues to have the energy, Larry can anchor as long as he wants.
Breit, and Antonia, whose real name is Maria Albisu-Twyman, are in their 50s. The suit goes on to charge that female anchors are "oppressively criticized, targeted and harassed after they reach their 40's." The suit names Larry Moore, Kris Ketz, Len Dawson, who has since retired, and Jim Flink as older anchors who have not been subject to the same treatment as they age.
Craft, like Eckerman, argued that the station had high ratings during her tenure as anchor. "I don't think my ugliness, age, or lack of deference was hurting their product." Craft, who turns 65 in December, went to law school during her 40s, passed the bar at age 50, joked, "I'm older, uglier and even less deferential than I was so many years ago back in Kansas City." In her law practice, Craft ironically fights for the rights of injured workers, many times going head-to-head with insurance companies, who deny claims against company insurance policies.
Craft, who was raised a surfer girl in Santa Barbara, returned to the state following the Kansas City station fiasco, relishing the idea that her appearance didn't matter on radio. She beat out Maureen Reagan for a job as a talk-show host at the same station that spawned conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
While Craft admits that her experiences with the 1980s suit somewhat helped influence her decision to become an attorney who fights for employee rights, she said it was a love of law and courts and a need for more ammunition, that led her to the courtroom. "I wanted to have a few extra skills on my side," she said.
Craft said she supports the three women, who follow in her footsteps in fighting for equal rights. "If it gets to trial, I swear to God I'm coming back there to watch," she said. "I want to see it come full circle."
Photo: Christine Craft today with Senator Al Franken of Minnesota.